When you study church history you will be more impressed by the diversity of the church than by its unity. Was Peter, impulsive and impassioned, exactly like Thomas, reserved, cautious, insisting on proof before proceeding? Was John Wesley, reserved, scholarly, disciplined, anything at all like 20th century evangelists such as Billy Sunday or Jimmy Swaggart? Christians have come in all colors, shapes and sizes. We have differed on almost every possible point of doctrine and politics. We have fought each other and often we have used very un-Christian means to do so. But it just may be that our diversity is the fuel that creates the mighty power we sometimes experience.
We tend to think that the greatest power is released when there is a splitting of the atom, because we have seen the pictures of the destruction that followed the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and the reality surrounding all forms of nuclear energy. But in the heart of our sun or any of the stars another process is going on. It is called nuclear "fusion" because in it atoms are brought together and "fused" rather than split. Scientists have been working on reproducing this process because it would be a cleaner process and because the amount of energy would be much greater at less risk. What really excites people is that this would be an answer to all of our energy problems if we could ever harness this power. In a spiritual sense of course this power is already at work in our world. It is the sort of power God brings to us. He makes the many one. He unites the things that have nothing in common. The power of his fusion releases a power that transforms the world.
This story from Acts shows us this fusion taking place. The main actors in chapter 10 are Peter, whom you already know about, and Cornelius, whom you don't. Cornelius was a gentile and a soldier. He was a "god fearer" which was a gentile who wanted to learn about God and who was willing to take on the yoke of the law even though they would never have full standing as a member of the community. They would always be outsiders, but they loved God so much they were willing to live with that. Nevertheless, on one particular day Cornelius and Peter each had a vision that excited them with a new possibility of unity. Cornelius heard an angel tell him to go and seek out a man named Simon, who would provide the answer to Cornelius' prayers. Peter, at the same time, had a vision of a sheet coming down from the sky filled with the food items that were at heart the point of argument and disagreement between the two peoples. Shellfish and pork and all sorts of things that troubled the Jews were in that sheet and when Peter heard the command of God "kill and eat" his whole world was turned upside down. Why would god tell him to violate his own laws? Why would the God who had been so careful to preserve the differences between his people and those around them suddenly get into the business of tearing down walls? If this vision was really from God, then neither Peter nor Cornelius could ever live their lives the same. Cornelius was no longer an outsider. And Peter had seen some basic principles of his faith destroyed. He had to make sense of things again, but he was excited about it because he felt like he was in the midst of a wonderful new thing that god had begun in his midst.
And he wasn't alone. After Peter preached a sermon interpreting what had happened he was mobbed. People wanted to be part of this new movement that gave everyone a part in what they were doing. They wanted this power that could break down walls and build bridges between people. And the Holy Spirit descended on them and they were filled with Jesus and their lives were never the same again. The message was simple:
. . . God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all . . . They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
The striking thing about this message was that it was for everyone. Traditionally, religions divided people in many different ways. There were a number of religious movements at the time that are now called "mystery" religions because the point of them was to find the key to unlock the mystery of the world and the divine. These religions were for the elite, the ones who could attain a high level of knowledge and understanding of religious ideas. They did not produce unity but rather division. They reinforced what had always been true of religion - it divided people from one another. Traditionally, each region had its own gods and its own religion. If you lived in Moore County you had your own gods and if you live in Hoke you had yours. For most of history in most places that has been the way it is. And of course people were divided in other ways. Some religions were popular with either the rich or with the poor, with sailors or with farmers. Some sought a god who made peace with the oppressor and others with one who wanted to throw them out. The time Jesus lived in was not that different than ours in the crazy diversity and the desire for something deeper and more meaningful to cut through all the craziness that people were calling religion.
There were so many understandings of god and yet there was no power, no energy behind any of them. There was no force at work bringing the pieces together. The power was lacking because they needed their opposite in order to reach their full potential. The left hand needed the right hand before anyone could go to work. The tongue needed the ear before anyone could sing. The bible needed the willing hands of faithful people before it could help to get God's work done. All of this power was just waiting to be unleashed. All it would take was bringing the opposites together so they could make something new and experience a power unlike any the world has every known.
On Easter, Jesus could hardly have been clearer about reaching out to outsiders. Jesus appeared on Easter morning to women first, then to one who had betrayed and denied him, and always to people who had deserted him in his hour of need and to people who had misunderstood or doubted him. It wasn't long until he appeared to one who was persecuting his followers and through the centuries he has appeared to every sort of yahoo and roughneck and nervous nellie and just plain sinner. And to each he says "I died for you." To each he offers his love, one of us at a time.
The power of Easter is the power of God's grace. It is grace that unites, grace that releases God's power. Easter brought grace abundant, grace beyone anyone's understanding or expectation. All of that came about because on Easter morning God declared that the good news was for everyone - living and dead, black and white, rich and poor, male and female, witty wealthy and wise or dumb and dumber. He died for everyone and through Jesus God is calling everyone to himself. No one is separated from God's love by anything at all. As Paul later said, We are all one in Christ Jesus.
He did it for everyone. Amazing. He did it for you. He did it for me. He did it for us. And therein lies the power. It is a power that never stops bringing things together that the world can never imagine together. We have power only because of the unity we are given in Christ Jesus. He is Lord of the church, who has made us all one in Christ Jesus. He is the Lord of all, and he is risen!